Unkind Mankind on Screen
“There is a greater good, and for that you must be sacrificed,” explains the Director (played by Sigourney Weaver), the figurehead of a mysterious organization with the cheery corporate goal of staving off the end times. We are in the dying moments of The Cabin in the Woods, a campy horror movie written by Joss Whedon (the writer and director of The Avengers) that has attracted laudatory notices for its clever rewriting of the teenagers-in-peril genre. The Cabin in the Woods has its college-age protagonists, cutting loose for the weekend at the titular retreat, terrorized by a sinister institute that monitors their every move on hidden cameras and unleashes myriad monsters to maul them.
The five friends are picked off one by one until the two survivors penetrate the underground facility and learn that the corporation is motivated by more than simple malice; it is seeking to propitiate ancient gods who live below Earth’s surface and demand blood sacrifice to delay their annihilatory return. The friends have stirred the subterranean idols by denying them their offerings, and now the final two must choose: give their own lives or let the world perish. Jaded by humanity’s cynicism, the pair decides the world is not worth it. They kick back, light up a joint, exchange some witticisms, and settle down to watch Armageddon let rip. Up through the ground, the corrupt soil of our corrupt world, shoot the gnarled mandibles of pagan deities, and the credits roll. It is intended as a happy ending.
This is all wrong. Apocalypse movies are about saving the world, or at least feeling bad if we can’t. That is the raison d’être of the superhero genre and why we put up a fight as recently as the 1990s disaster cycle, in movies such as Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), and Men in Black (1997). Thankfully, we’ve wised up and realized we are the problem. We overpopulate the planet, wage needless wars, deplete the environment, and place grubby profit above natural resources. It’s the world that needs saving—from us. “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” cautioned Arnold J. Toynbee. The Cabin in the Woods is up there with us on the ledge, whispering in our ear: “Go on, do it. No one will miss you.”
Civilizational fatigue is a growing trend at the movies. Avatar (2009), the movie that made it socially acceptable to cheer the deaths of American soldiers, said something similar to The Cabin in the Woods. Both are pitched to a post-American audience for whom the United States, or the West in general, is an obvious antagonist. When the U.S. military of the 22nd century in Avatar occupies a distant planet and abuses its indigenous people to exploit their natural resources, the audience is cued to holler with bloodlust when the natives fight back and the Americans finally get theirs. Superman Returns (2006) could not even bring itself to speak of the American Way and so had the Man of Steel fight for “truth, justice, all that stuff.”
We can see this elsewhere: in the comic-book mutant Magneto’s eminently logical reasons for his attempt to destroy the human race, particularly the American part of it, in X-Men: The Last Stand (2009); and in the fact that a new ice age is upon us in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) for our rapacious despoiling of the planet. The 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s The Fog dispensed with the gutsy survivalism of the 1980 original, which saw the leads—descendants of settlers who plundered a ship’s gold to build their town—resist the ghostly mariners who rose a century later to exact revenge. Their town had been founded in infamy, to be sure, but they had enough self-belief to fight to preserve it. The teeny television stars of the remake intone solemnly about “injustice” and how they’re “the children of murderers.” The attack of the ghouls had become less a struggle for survival than a welcome teachable moment on the evils of colonialism.
This come-on-baby-let-the-bad-times-roll enthusiasm for American decline and the wholesale prosecution of mankind for its loathsome behavior are the logical extensions of a culture willing itself into extinction. The idea that the world would in general be better off without all these people has become a central tenet of environmentalist thinking. More specifically, the conception of America as a racist, imperialist, polluting malignancy without which the world could get some relief is not much of a stretch from campus curricula. The Cabin in the Woods is where giddy self-loathing leads. Perhaps we should go down and let someone more deserving lead the world. You’ve been here long, too long, America.
The superstition that corrupt America must be destroyed to restore the nation’s true destiny is not new. This romantic Schumpeterism seethed in the poetry of Langston Hughes:
Out of the rack and ruin of our
The rape and rot of graft, and
stealth, and lies
We, the people, must redeem…
And make America again!
But Hughes and like-minded radicals agitated for a return to founding ideals from which the country had supposedly drifted. The Cabin in the Woods has no interest in making America again; all it wants is to be rid of this wretched vulgar civilization. Bordering on religious fanaticism, this secular eschatology inverts Christianity’s redemption narrative: America must die so that man can live. We’ve come a long way from establishment Hollywood’s sneering at the Left Behind series, whose characters live through the Armageddon envisioned in Revelation and by certain evangelical Christians. Now liberals want in on the rapture industry, too.
“You know, this used to be a hell of a good country,” Jack Nicholson mused in Easy Rider in 1969. “I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” Now the movies say it was never a good country. It was always rotten. Let’s be done with it. It appears the hemped-up hippies of the counterculture had a sharper perspective than do the stone-cold sober nihilists of today’s anti-culture. Joss Whedon, who has strived to articulate an intelligent popular culture through his television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, designed an astute meta-horror intended to offer a way forward for a genre mired in mean-spirited torture-porn and fatuous remakes. But a pornography of decline, featuring pulp politics for a left-liberal elite eyeing its best chance in decades to smash American exceptionalism, is hardly an improvement. It’s self-hatred passing for self-criticism.